Let's Talk Turkey

by Mark R. Vogel

            Thanksgiving is approaching and households across America will be preparing the traditional turkey.  About 46 million turkeys will be “gobbled” up according to the National Turkey Federation.  The most common question people have is how to cook a juicy bird.  Simple.  Make duck instead.

            I don’t care what anybody says.  Turkey meat, particularly the breast, is not juicy.  Of course this depends on your definition of “juicy.”  For me, juicy is the moisture level in a medium-rare rib-eye steak, braised veal shanks or duck confit.  For me, turkey breast is like gnawing on slightly damp newspaper. 

And because America is so obsessed with dry white meat, the industry has selectively bred birds to create abnormally large breasts.  In fact, the breasts of most male turkeys have become so huge, they can no longer mate.  The enlarged breast either obstructs mating or would hurt the female.  Thus, most female turkeys have to be artificially inseminated.  Apparently birds of a feather don’t always flock together. 

Flavor and juiciness in any meat is a function of two factors: 1) how often the muscle is used by the animal and 2) intramuscular fat.  The greater the muscle is exercised the deeper will be the flavor.  Idle muscles require less blood and nutrients and subsequently do not develop as much flavor.  But even more important for both flavor and succulence is intramuscular fat.  Much to the chagrin of fat-phobes, the more fat, the tastier and juicier the meat will be. 

The breast of a turkey is a relatively inactive muscle and very low in intramuscular fat.  With one possible exception, there is nothing you can do to low-fat meat to make it fattier, and hence moister.  Generally all you can do is not make matters worse.  Therefore, virtually all of the tips for cooking a juicier turkey are really just ways to prevent it from becoming drier than it already is.  With that in mind, here’s the deal:

 

1)  The one way to “fatten” your turkey is to work butter under the skin of the bird before roasting.  Some chefs employ a compound butter, which is butter infused with herbs and seasonings.  Soften the butter at room temperature, loosen but do not remove the skin, and then work the butter underneath it with your fingers, covering as much of the bird as possible. 

 

2) Wild turkeys are a little tougher, (although more flavorful), than commercial turkeys since they get considerably more exercise.  But that also means less fat and ergo, less succulence.

 

3) Younger turkeys will be tenderer than their older counterparts.  For the most tender, juiciest turkey, pick a young one that’s been cooped up in a pen.

 

4) Brine your turkey.  This is a direct way to make the meat juicier, (but not fattier or more unctuous).  Brining is the process of soaking meat in a salt-water solution.  I recommend at least six hours for a whole turkey.  Brining works via the processes of osmosis and the tendency for adjacent mediums to equalize their level of salinity.  In a nutshell, the turkey will absorb some of the water and consequently will be moister.  For a 12 – 16 lb. turkey use one cup of kosher salt, or one half cup of table salt for every 2 gallons of water.  Take an unfrozen turkey, remove the giblets, rinse it, and then submerge it in a large bucket of the salt-water solution and refrigerate.  Remove it from the brine, rinse it, and then pat it dry before cooking.  Sugar and/or herbs are also sometimes added to the brine to accentuate flavor.

 

5) DO NOT OVERCOOK THE TURKEY.  The quickest route to dry meat of any kind is to overcook it.  Use a thermometer.  The turkey is done when, like chicken, the breast is 165 degrees and the deepest part of the thigh has reached 175 degrees.  Procure a programmable thermometer so you can monitor the bird’s temperature throughout the cooking process. 

 

6) Allow the turkey to rest for 15 – 30 minutes before carving.  All roasted items should rest before being carved.  This allows the juices to be reabsorbed into the meat.  If you carve it immediately the juices will run out.  During this time the turkey will continue to cook due to carry over cooking.  Therefore, you should remove the turkey when it is about 10 degrees less than the target temperature. 

 

7) Do not stuff the turkey.   A stuffed bird takes longer to cook and can make for drier meat.  This is because by the time the center of the stuffing has reached 165 degrees the temperature of the surrounding meat will be well past that.  Make the stuffing separately.

 

8) Use a roasting pan three inches deep or less and a rack for even roasting.  If the bird sits on the bottom of the pan, or the pan’s sides are too high, the heat cannot penetrate the bird uniformly.  Turn the roasting pan at various intervals to further facilitate even roasting. 

 

9) Some individuals roast their turkey breast side down, the rationale being that the juices will drip into the breast.  Moreover, since the breast cooks faster than the dark meat and needs less cooking, situating it on the bottom exposes it to less direct heat.  Or, you can leave the bird breast side up and cover the breast with foil.  Remove the foil for the last half hour of cooking to brown the breast.

 

10) Do not truss the bird.  The dark meat will cook faster unfettered and thus reduce the chance of the breast overcooking by the time the dark meat is done.

 

11) Roast a turkey at lower temperatures, usually 325 – 350.  Intense heat can overcook the outside before the center is completely done.  However, many cooks will either start or finish the bird at high heat (400 degrees or more) to ensure a fully browned exterior and crisp skin.  I prefer the latter as it is easier to gauge how much additional browning is needed toward the end of the cooking process.

 

12) Finally, don’t bother basting.  The meat, covered by the skin, will not absorb the juices.  Every time you open the oven door you’re allowing heat to escape and prolonging cooking time.

 

 

 

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